Teddy Roosevelt was a real renaissance man – naturalist, politician, writer, explorer, soldier and cowboy. At home in the White House as well as in the Dakota Badlands or on African Safari, Roosevelt had a big personality and an uncommon zest for life.
Because of his bigger-than-life personality, many biographies have been written on him including the excellent Theodore Rex and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. But I discovered a book written on a little known part of T.R.’s life called The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. Part presidential history, part natural history and part adventure story, this is fact more thrilling than fiction.
After narrowly losing the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt embarks on an Indiana Jones-like trip to South America to ease his political heartbreak. The pinnacle of the trip for Roosevelt is an exploratory canoe ride down a recently discovered 600 mile tributary of the Amazon River called the River of Doubt. In a time where the Amazon jungle was largely undiscovered it was considered extremely dangerous.
Roosevelt, along with his sensitive son Kermit (who T.R. wants to toughen up), the famous Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon and others set off for the adventure of their lives. Quickly finding themselves woefully unprepared with boats too large and food that is too heavy and cumbersome, the party encounters terrible rapids, starvation, hostile Indians, disease, mutiny and drowning. At one point the famous tough guy Roosevelt is so riddled with fatigue and disease he wants the rest of the explorers to leave him for dead. The story is also about perseverance, sacrifice, team-work and survival.
The book is well-written and well-researched. Millard gives detailed explanations of rainforest ecology, the culture of the native Indians and the American political climate of the time, interspersed with a great adventure that zips the story along. It is exactly what I love in a good book: the ability to give the reader knowledge and entertain at the same time.